The FCC’s 11-Year Rush to Judgment on Media Ownership

by on November 9, 2007 · 0 comments

Is the FCC moving too fast on media ownership? Senators Byron Dorgan and Trent Lott think so, announcing new legislation this week to slow things down a bit. His bill, S. 2332, would require the FCC to wait 90 days before promulgating any changes to current ownership rules, and to conduct a separate proceeding on localism. The bill is spurred by reports that Chairman Kevin Martin is pushing for a final vote on changes to the FCC’s ban on cross-ownership of newspapers and broadcast outlets by the end of the year.

House Commerce Committee chair John Dingell has echoed the senators’ call, warning the FCC “against a rush to judgment in its media ownership proceeding,” as has activist groups such as Free Press – the energizer bunny of government regulation – which is warning that:

“Kevin Martin, Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, has been keeping a secret from the American people. He wants to push through plans to remove decades-old media ownership protections. And he’s trying to do it without public scrutiny”.

Now, I’m the first to recognize that the FCC has a lot of faults, but moving to fast is a new one to me. The Commission deliberations have long been known for their Bleak House qualities, extending – like the case of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce – seemingly for generations. Decisionmaking at the agency is – as long-time FCC policy chief Robert Pepper put it – “infinitely elastic.”

But it this case different? Is the FCC – like a runaway glacier – suddenly moving dangerously fast on media ownership? Hardly.

Take a look at the record.

The FCC’s current proceeding on media ownership began nearly 17 months ago, followed soon thereafter by the release of a notice of proposed rulemaking. Public comments were taken until September of last year (with the deadline being extended once), with a reply round lasting until December of last year.

During these time, the Commission also hit the road – holding seven public hearings – in Los Angeles, El Segundo, CA, Nashville, Harrisburg, Tampa, Chicago and Seattle. It also commissioned, and released for public comment, 10 academic studies on various aspects of media ownership.

The Commission’s review of the ownership rules didn’t begin last year, however. An earlier round began in September 2002, when the Commission issued a notice of proposed rulemaking, also followed by public comments and reply comments. This proceeding was accompanied by another half-dozen or so academic studies commissioned by the commission. As a result of this effort, the FCC issued an order revising the rules. (The decision was appealed in court, and eventually remanded).

But the saga didn’t begin in 2002 either. In the fall of 2001, the FCC issued a notice of proposed rulemaking specifically focused on the newspaper-broadcast ownership rules. This too involved public comments and reply comments. That proceeding, in turn, was spurred by a June 2000 report in which the FCC found that the rule might not necessary under certain circumstances. And that report? Based on – yes – yet another FCC proceeding, which began in 1998.

It goes on. The 1998 proceeding built, in turn, on a 1996 proceeding in which the FCC considered revisions to its waiver policies for radio-newspaper cross-ownership.

All told, the FCC has been continuously considering and reconsidering its newspaper cross-ownership rules for at least 11 years, in at least five separate proceedings, each with extensive public notice and comment.

Only in Washington can that be considered a “rush to judgment.”

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